The vendor profile for Crimson Lotus Tea is a part of our Pu’erh Tea Vendor Series, covering a number of Pu’erh-centric vendors that sell to the west. This interview was conducted with Glen of Crimson Lotus Tea.
Crimson Lotus Tea is one of the newest and hottest vendors in the pu’erh scene. Formed in late 2013, Crimson Lotus is based in Seattle and is composed of the husband/wife duo of Glen and Lamu Bowers. Lamu was originally from Yunnan, creating an instant familial connection to the land of pu’erh. The pair made their first sourcing trip to Yunnan in Spring 2014 (they also got married on the same trip!). The sourcing trip was well documented on their blog and resulted in a diverse range of pu’erh, Crimson Lotus brand cakes, teapets, and Jianshui teaware offered on their site. Crimson Lotus Tea fits firmly into the curated pu’erh vendor category with a small but eclectic selection of raw and ripe pu’erh.
How did you get your start into tea?
I’ve drank tea my entire life, but it was never more than just a hot beverage. About 6 years ago I started getting really passionate about coffee. I became obsessed with perfecting the craft of coffee. Being in Seattle I had a lot of friends in the coffee industry. I hung out at their shops often. I attended a lot of coffee cuppings. I even learned how to roast my own beans at home. I considered myself on a journey of coffee. Tea was nice, but it was an afterthought.
All that changed the Spring of 2013. I was on a many month long road trip around the US and I found myself in Santa Cruz, California. A friend I was staying with told me about a local place that had a kungfu tea called pu’erh. That was Hidden Peak Teahouse. I went the next day and spent a long afternoon learning about gongfu and pu’erh tea. I was hooked immediately. I had a very emotional connection to pu’erh. It felt familiar to me. It was like I had always known it even though that was my first time drinking it.
I started to ask a lot of questions about pu’erh. My friends told me it was from one place in China; the province of Yunnan. My first reaction was to say “Yunnan?! I think the girl I’m going to be marrying is from Yunnan!”. My second reaction was to call Lamu, my now wife, and ask her some questions. Our conversation went like this:
Me: “Hey Lamu, I’m in Santa Cruz and I just had this AMAZING tea they tell me is from Yunnan. You’re from Yunnan right?”
Lamu: “Yeah I’m from Yunnan.”
Me: “Well this tea is called pu’erh. Have you ever heard of it?”
Lamu: “Of course I’ve heard of it. Everyone’s heard of it. It’s from my province!”
Me: “Well how come you never told me about it?”
Lamu: “I don’t know, I thought everyone knew about it.”
Me: “Well, I really like it!”
After that I started reading as much as I could about pu’erh. I ended the roadtrip a month later in Seattle and Lamu and I visited New Century Tea Gallery in the Seattle International District. I bought my first bing of pu’erh and a nice Yixing teapot. Actually it was only half a cake of pu’erh. The full cake was $90 and that seemed crazy expensive to me. The owner broke the cake in half and sold it to me like that. I brewed it every day.
How about as a vendor?
I had been brewing pu’erh daily, and found it was replacing coffee for me. If given the choice in the morning the siren call of pu’erh was stronger than that from coffee. There is a local coffee shop I love called Victrola, and they had gotten their hands on a very small batch of green Panamian Gesha from Hacienda La Esmerelda. This is hands down one of the best coffees in the world. I’ve had Gesha before and it is worth the hype. They had painfully limited quantities of this amazing bean. I ordered half a pound for like $60. I was crazy excited for it to come. When it did, I prepared it in my ritualistic way and drank it. I was very disappointed. It was great, but it wasn’t pu’erh. I realized in that moment how taken by p’uerh I was.
Lamu and I had a discussion that went exactly like this Lamu, what if we started a tea business that focused on pu’erh. It would give us a chance to go to Yunnan every year to visit your relatives. We would bring back the tea we found and find people like me to sell it to. She very excitedly replied “That sounds great! I’m in.” That’s it.
That is how we started. Lamu and I are a great fit. She has a Masters in Accounting, and I have 2 decades of high tech web experience with a recent focus in online community and social media. Starting this business was meant to be. Everything just fell into place.
When you first started pu’erh as a coffee person you were really drawn to ripe pu’erh. How have your tastes changed as you’ve sampled and learned more about pu’erh?
Shou pu’erh is the first pu’erh that I tried. For me it is emotionally similar to coffee. It’s dark, earthy, and soothing like coffee is. That’s what I thought all pu’erh was at first. Then I learned about the differences. The first time I tried sheng pu’erh was with that Lincang Lancang Bai Ying Shan cake we sold. It was a really rough experience for me. I was definitely not expecting it. I brewed it wrong and I paid for it. I got slapped around silly. It took a long time for me to learn to appreciate sheng pu’erh. I bought hundreds of dollars worth of samples from US based pu’erh vendors. I started putting in a lot of time with sheng pu’erh. I found that there were qualities in sheng that I really liked, but it just wasn’t shou pu’erh.
That all changed once I went to Yunnan this Spring. I had one experience with a Changtai sheng pu’erh at a tea shop in Lijiang that really blew my mind. Everything that I had ever read about sheng pu’erh finally made sense. I just got it. Then I spent the next few months visiting tons of tea mountains and drinking a LOT of sheng pu’erh. Shou pu’erh is still my first love. Nowadays though I’d guess my daily drinking habits are quickly approaching 50/50 sheng/shou. We have some really amazing sheng pu’erh.
Having sourced (and now sold) tea directly from Yunnan once already. You also traveled
mountain to mountain meeting many of the tea farmers and locals. This has been extensively
covered on the Crimson Lotus blog. Do you anticipate these sourcing trips directly to the mountains and tea markets will continue?
Absolutely! We’ll at least be spending each Spring in Yunnan. Visiting the farmers we work with currently is part of the plan. Yunnan is a fantastic place. We’ve made a lot of good friends there. I can’t wait to get back!
One of the things the western tea community really loved that you brought back was the Jianshui pottery. These are usually used as an alternative to Yixing. What have your experiences been performance-wise for these pots?
I love brewing tea in Jianshui clay teapots. The first time I brewed pu’erh tea in a Jianshui teapot I noticed a significant difference. In the mountains outside of Jianshui they have a pure clay without sand so it’s easily polished to get that shiny exterior they’re known for. Being able to work direct with the artists and workshops where these are made is a real bonus. Also, for me, I like the connection that the clay has to the soil where pu’erh tea trees grow.
About a year ago you published some research you did on the climate in the Pacific Northwest
(Seattle) and aging pu’erh in the Northwest. Scott (of Yunnan Sourcing) who has a
large pu’erh stock in Portland has also talked positively about the aging of pu’erh in the Northwest. How do you currently feel about the aging prospects of pu’erh in the Northwest?
I’m very excited about the prospect of aging pu’erh tea in the Pacific Northwest. Will PNW aged tea be identical to traditional Hong Kong stored pu’erh? No, and if you’re expecting that you’ll be disappointed. Will the climate of the PNW kill pu’erh? Absolutely not. It will age in it’s own unique way.
How do you store Crimson Lotus’ stock of pu’erh?
We have a spare room in our house that we use for pu’erh storage. The room is disconnected from central air heating. We use metal wire shelving and each tea is stored in simple odor free cardboard boxes. We monitor it constantly for temperature and humidity. Moisture is on average about 65% Relative Humidity. Temperature averages about 65°F. There is a window that I use to control air flow. It’s been working out quite well so far.
In the beginning I did a lot of experiments with mini pumidors but came to the conclusion that I wanted mother nature to do most of the heavy lifting. I still think there is advantage in pumidor setups for people living in certain areas. You can go a long way with a simple rubbermaid plastic box (one that has no aroma) and some humidity control packets from Boveda.
Being based stateside, Crimson Lotus has a strong focus on tea tastings, and converting people to pu’erh. What have your experiences been like?
It’s been great so far. One of the focuses of our company is on tea education. I’m looking for ‘me’. I’m trying to find the people out there who are on a journey looking for a tea like pu’erh, but have no idea that it even exists yet.
Most of our customers aren’t just new to pu’erh, they’re new to the world of high end tea, or even any tea that isn’t bagged Lipton. I love that. Having a tea tasting where people get to experience something like the high end teas that we sell when they have no idea that experience even exists is amazing. People are largely very receptive to the experience. We also find people really appreciate the ritual that brewing tea gongfu style can offer. Ritual, anything done ritually, is almost entirely lacking in our Western culture. I think it has created a void in people. There is something calming about taking time with a tea and forcing yourself to experience it without a focus on caffeine consumption. pu’erh is a tea that rewards those who respect it enough to take time with it.
Are there certain types of pu’erh that people gravitate to more easily (ripe vs. raw, Yiwu vs. Lincang, etc.)?
It really depends entirely on the person. I’ll do tea tastings with a group of people and have a handful of pu’erhs and each person connects with a different one. I do find that a lot of coffee drinkers connect with shou pu’erh. People with a background in green teas gravitate towards sheng pu’erh; especially young sheng pu’erh. As far as which region, I don’t really think it matters for new drinkers.
You both have toured and experienced the culture surrounding pu’erh in both Yunnan and the west, what are your feelings on western pu’erh culture and the tea community in the west?
Western tea culture is certainly growing. Even just in the past few years I’ve noticed changing mindsets about drinking tea. I don’t think that’s just a fad. I also think the internet has really helped broaden the minds of consumers. That said it is hard comparing a culture where tea has been completely integrated at a fundamental level for countless generations with our very recent connection with tea. In China, tea is literally a part of the fabric of daily life.
How do you think it will change or evolve in the future?
I see good things. I see America adopting its own culture of tea. I myself hope it’s inline with gongfu and has a ritualistic aspect. I think people really need that. They need to slow down and appreciate things. I also think people crave social experiences that don’t involve alcohol. So much of the Western idea of socializing in public involves booze. I have no real problem with that, but it’s expensive and can be a bit destructive. Sitting with friends around a tea table for a few hours letting the tea energy open up your creativity is such a rewarding experience.
If someone had $80 to spend (excluding shipping) on their first pu’erh order from Crimson Lotus Tea. What recommendations would you give them?
Samples are the way to go. Nearly everything we sell we have samples of. 25 grams can give you 4-6 good sessions with a pu’erh. For $80 I’d like to see them get something like this
That would give a nice example of young sheng/old sheng. On the shou pu’erh side it would present an idea of the spectrum that shou pu’erh offers.
Any specific advice you would give this friend?
Experimentation is key! Get a simple gaiwan, a simple tea table, a fairness cup, and a few tea cups. Then just get to know the tea. Play around with water brewing temperatures. Mess around with water to leaf ratios. See how many steeps you can get out of your pu’erh.
Start a small tea journal. Keep track of which teas you’ve tried, and what you thought of them. Drink tea with friends! Invite friends over to share the tea with. Tea is not something to hide. Make it a social affair. It is very rewarding.
Any exciting things happening that you can share for Crimson Lotus?
We are going to be at the NW Tea Festival this October 4-5th. We are very excited about that. We have a booth and will be doing some guided tea tastings as well. We have been crazy busy getting things ready for that. We have been holding back on selling the teas we sourced ourselves this year until the festival. We will be selling a 6 mountain travel set. Each tea tin will have a Spring picked 2014 sheng pu’erh that we bought ourselves direct from the farmers on our tea journey. It will include Jiangcheng, Jingmai, Bulang, Yiwu, Kunlu, and Bai Ying. We have less than 3 kilograms of each type of tea. We really want as many people as possible to experience what we experienced while we were travelling. Each tin will only have 20 grams. That’s not a lot, but enough for people to get an idea of how each region can vary in a single years season.
We also have a portable gongfu brewing setup we call gongfu2go that we’re pretty excited about. We’re still finalizing the packaging for that now. It has been a busy summer, but we’re really excited about the future.
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